This is what makes the play great. It can never be dated because the moral question it asks can never be answered: are we responsible for the fate of people to whom we are not related and whom we will never even know?
In the play, a family manages to survive the fact that the patriarch, who manufactured airplane parts during World War 11, is responsible (maybe) for the deaths of 21 pilots because he shipped out cracked cylinder heads.
One son, a pilot, has died—although he did not fly the kind of bomber the defective cylinder heads used. His father, the manufacturer, is destroyed when his other son forces him to face what he has done.
But: does anyone have the right to pull away the veils of denial and delusion that allow all human beings to live with our inevitable acts of betrayal? Does “telling the truth” to someone who can’t bear it make the truth teller a murderer?
The question flared for me when I walked out of the Broadway theatre into the scene of what we have become, in this country and all over the world.
People. Masses of people, nearly trampling each other as they shouted and pushed under neon lights that must be visible from outer space. People spilling out of the sidewalks and into the streets, blocking traffic. Cars crawling and honking, police standing by with nothing to do—a mob too big for the street, too big for the world.
It is impossible to imagine what would happen if someone began to shout about climate disruption, about what all these bodies and all these lights mean for the fate of our world.
Of course, such a warning could never be heard over the ear-shattering clamor of police sirens, car horns, and hundreds of people pressed together and shouting at the tops of their lungs.
If we really believed that we are destroying the earth, would we be able to go on? Or would we, like the man in Miller’s play who had to face his (possible) responsibility for 21 deaths (just 21!) have to put a bullet in our heads?